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BEL-AIR Is a Sad, Dramatic Departure From the Original FRESH PRINCE

Will Smith/YouTube

BEL-AIR Is a Sad, Dramatic Departure From the Original FRESH PRINCE

By Movieguide® Contributor

BEL-AIR is Peacock’s soap opera drama reboot of the classic ’90s comedy THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR. This drama stars Jabari Banks as Will Smith, Cassandra Freeman as Vivian Banks, Coco Jones as Hillary Banks, Olly Sholotan as Carlton Banks, and Adrian Wilkes as Uncle Phil. The character names are the same, but it is a dramatic departure from the comedy on which this show is based. 

Produced by Debra Lovatelli, Jeff Rafner and Jason B. Harkins and written by TJ Brady, Morgan Cooper, Hank Jones and Rashad Newsom, the drama features troubled teen Will Smith, wanted by gangs on the streets of West Philly. He is sent by his mom to live with his uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian in the swanky part of Bel Air, California. But where trouble found him in Philly follows him to California, destroying lives in its wake. Eight of eleven total episodes are available to view now on Peacock. 

Will Smith is king of the streets of Philly. That is, until two thugs challenge Will to a game of basketball. If Will wins, he gets $2000. If he loses, he works for the gang leader. After Will wins the game, another gang member throws the ball, hitting the gang leader in the face. Believing Will’s the culprit, the gang beats up on Will’s friend Tray. The cops come just as Will shoots off Tray’s gun to stop the fight, causing him to be thrown in jail. The gang leader vows revenge. Will’s mom is scared she’s going to lose her son and ships him off to Bel Air to live with his aunt and uncle. Will begins to make enemies as soon as he arrives, starting with his cousin Carlton.

Carlton, used to getting what he wants, is the king of his prep school. Once Carlton sees Will and Carlton’s ex, Lisa, kissing at a party, a fight ensues, and Will is public enemy No. 1. Carlton and his friends vow revenge and they get even temporarily, until Uncle Phil clears him of wrongdoing. But Carlton still wants to be king of Bel Air again and will go to great lengths to get it.  

Uncle Phil, a lawyer, is running for District Attorney. He must get big donors to believe in him to fund his campaign. But it is not without people everywhere accusing him of being a sellout and not using his platform to speak out on the issues that matter to the black community. Phil and his work partner Geoffrey, feel the political pressure to please people from all sides to earn this coveted title.

Aunt Vivian, a former painter, put her career on hold to help Philip with his campaign. But the artist in her wants to create and paint again. Encouraged by her friends to start painting again, she feels torn between being there for her family and pursuing her dream.

Hillary has dreams of her own. A big social media influencer, she wants to be more and pursue her dream of becoming a chef, interviewing for a spot making food for the Haute Cuisine magazine. But when the owners believe her family is not their targeted audience, Vivian encourages her followers to blacklist the company for being racist.

Twelve-year-old Ashley is a young girl trying to come out from the shadow of her family’s money and influence. Sneaking out to see boys and other teen shenanigans has Ashley trying to find herself in a world that won’t think twice about exploiting her for her family’s money. She also identifies as gay but is confused if she’s gay or bi-sexual. 

BEL-AIR has a strong romantic worldview. Vivian, Hilary, Carlton Uncle Phil and Ashley a pursue their dreams without thinking about the cost those dreams may have on the family dynamic. Vivian converts an extra room into a new art studio, Will gets on the basketball team despite Carlton’s objections, Ashley sneaks out to see a boy without permission and Uncle Phil is driven to win his campaign despite the cost. 

There are some politically correct elements in the show, however, about pursuing justice and to make amends for the injustices among the black community. Will is wrongfully accused of using drugs, but his name is cleared when videotape shows someone planting the drugs in his bag. The show also carries out an agenda of defunding the police and cleaning up impoverished areas of California. 

One of the biggest departures from its original is the excessive use of language (including racial epithets and profanities such as the F word) and excessive violence such as a gang beating someone up, shooting a gun in the air and threatening to kill someone. Moderate nudity including a man coming out naked at a party a couple of scenes with men’s shirts off, and a scene of a woman in lingerie. Low sexual content (two people kissing and a scene of implied sex between two teens) but there is a large agenda to accept and normalize homosexuality. Drug use is also glorified and not rebuked, as well as drinking and smoking (neither is rebuked.) There are also other questionable elements such as greed, revenge, exploitation, lying, stealing, all of which are portrayed in a positive light because the Banks family is rich, which gives the overall message that if you are rich, sin is overlooked. 

The other biggest departure from its original is the writing. Although Will is still portrayed as a poor, misunderstood kid from the streets and Carlton and family are still portrayed as successful because of their economic status, that’s where the similarities end. There are some loose references to Hilary mooching off of mom and dad’s money and innocent Ashley is still trying to find herself, but the rest of the plot lines are so far away from the original, viewers will easily differentiate between the two. Viewers do not have to have seen the original comedy to enjoy this show as the plot and characters stand on their own. However, if viewers are looking to bask in the nostalgia of the popular 90s sitcom, they shouldn’t watch Belair because it could not be further away from the original plot. 

Producers did a great job with camera work and lighting, often portraying the streets of Philly at night showing its ominous propensity for drugs and crime, but Bel Air is shot in bright sunshine, glorifying its allure of wealth, success and fame. Wills mom said it best, “your crown is waiting for you. It’s just a matter of when you’ll have the courage to wear it.” Viewers will enjoy the use of color and camera shots as it portrays the black community in a positive light (the crown motif is used throughout) and uses cinematography to do so. 

Overall, Movieguide finds BEL-AIR to be excessive, including too much foul language, violence, immorality, and/or worldview problems. The dramatic feel will make viewers feel more like they are watching a soap opera rather than a reboot of the original. If viewers want a trip down nostalgia lane, they should take a detour from BELAIR.